AIDS advocate, researcher Dr. Mathilde Krim dies

  • by Liz Highleyman
  • Wednesday January 17, 2018
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Dr. Mathilde Krim, a pioneering medical researcher and advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS, died at her home on Long Island, New York, Monday, January 15. She was 91.

Dr. Krim, who became involved in AIDS research and activism in the early years of the epidemic, was the founding chairperson of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton.

"Dr. Krim devoted her life to ending the AIDS epidemic, standing up against misinformation and discrimination," said San Francisco AIDS Foundation CEO Joe Hollendoner. "Our progress would not have been possible without Dr. Krim's leadership of the scientific and philanthropic responses to the HIV pandemic."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), lauded Dr. Krim's work.

"Dr. Krim's groundbreaking research helped overcome the prejudice-fueled fears and misconceptions rife in the early years in the fight against HIV/AIDS," Pelosi said in a statement. "Inspired by the incredible strength of men and women fighting HIV/AIDS, she moved beyond the lab to become an outspoken, fearless champion against homophobia and AIDS-related stigma."

In the early 1980s, Dr. Krim was among the first scientists to take an interest in the vexing new disease and to recognize its epidemic potential. Along with Dr. Joseph Sonnabend and others, she founded the AIDS Medical Foundation in 1983, which merged with Elizabeth Taylor's National AIDS Research Foundation to become the American Foundation for AIDS Research. She served as amfAR's board chair for more than a decade before stepping down for health reasons in 2005. Over the years amfAR has raised more than $500 million for HIV/AIDS research.

In addition to her scientific efforts, Dr. Krim, a straight ally, was also involved in raising public awareness and fighting stigma around AIDS, as well as promoting safer sex and needle exchange, advocating for HIV prevention and care for people who use drugs, and championing gay rights.

"I have no doubt that I owe my life in part to Dr. Mathilde Krim," said former ACT UP/San Francisco member Waiyde Palmer. "Her leadership in the fight to end AIDS, stop discrimination, confront an indifferent and ineffective governmental response to the pandemic, and her unflappable courage from the earliest days of the disease to the end of her days on this planet were 'sheroic.'"

Dr. Krim worked with ACT UP, the Treatment Action Group, and other activists to expand access and lower the cost of early HIV medications. She testified before Congress for increased funding for AIDS research and services and hosted numerous fundraisers for amfAR, TAG, and other organizations.

"We have lost an inspirational, tireless, and catalytic leader of our movement," said TAG executive director Mark Harrington. "Dr. Krim understood the gravity of the epidemic in its earliest and darkest days, and was driven by her own remarkable intelligence, fierce commitment to civil rights and social justice, extraordinary social and political networks, and true grit to galvanize funders, scientists, policy leaders, and activists toward a single cause: ending HIV and AIDS as a threat to humanity."

Early life

Dr. Krim was born Mathilde Galland on July 9, 1926 in Como, Italy, and grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, during World War II. She would later say that her dedication to fighting injustice was sparked by seeing news footage of Nazi concentration camps.

Dr. Krim studied biology at the University of Geneva, earning her Ph.D. in 1953. There she met David Danon, a Jewish student who was a member of the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun, and she recalled smuggling guns for fighters in British-ruled Palestine. She married Danon, converted to Judaism, and moved to Israel, where she studied cancer-causing viruses at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

In 1958, after divorcing Danon, Dr. Krim married New York entertainment lawyer Arthur Krim, chair of United Artists and founder of Orion Pictures, as well as chair of the Democratic National Finance Committee and a presidential adviser.

Not satisfied with the life of a New York City society hostess, Dr. Krim joined the research staff at Cornell University Medical School. She later moved to the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, where she led research on interferon, an immune-based therapy used in the treatment of cancer and viral hepatitis.

After starting the AIDS Medical Foundation, Dr. Krim found her time increasingly spent on fundraising and she gave up biomedical research to devote herself full-time to the cause. Following the development of effective combination treatment in the mid-1990s, the organization refocused on HIV cure research.

"[Dr. Krim's] discoveries with interferon continue to inform us to this day and her work creating what would become amfAR are a vital part of our search for a cure," Dr. Paul Volberding, director of the UCSF AIDS Research Institute and the amfAR Institute for HIV Cure Research, told the Bay Area Reporter. "She was a true pioneer - a scientist and an activist and brilliant at both."

Dr. Krim's work as a scientist and advocate was widely lauded by the HIV/AIDS community.

"For people living with HIV/AIDS of a certain age, Mathilde Krim was a hero. I don't know how many people in their 20s, 30s, or even 40s know her name or what she did in the fight against this disease, her work in the civil rights, anti-apartheid, and gay rights movements," said longtime AIDS activist Gregg Gonsalves. "She was never afraid to speak out, to use her privilege and position to advocate for people with HIV/AIDS, to push for syringe exchange and the rights of people who use drugs, and to combat the homophobia and racism that fueled the epidemic. She went after political leaders who ignored us - she had our backs."

Dr. Krim is survived by her daughter Daphna Krim, two grandchildren, and a sister. Donations in her memory may be made to amfAR (